On The Job - Tennessee

Michael Garlock reports on a fire station that took a direct hit from a tornado, and how its crew conducted search and rescue operations in unbelievable conditions.


JACKSON FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief Owen S. Collins Personnel: 166 career firefighters Apparatus: 10 pumpers, three aerials, one hazmat unit, one tanker Population: 50,000 Area: 49 square miles Located 80 miles east of Memphis and 120 miles west of Nashville, the small Tennessee community...


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The search and rescue operation, conducted in poor light at best, was made even more dangerous by numerous live wires and gas mains, some of which had been shut off or capped by imaginative improvisation. A spark could have been catastrophic.

Between 30 and 35 people were injured. They were taken by ambulance to Jackson-Madison County General Hospital and Methodist Regency Hospital. Approximately 50 houses and 20 commercial buildings went down. Although they received help from Civil Defense members, the police department and some volunteers, to a great extent the seven members of the Bemis fire crew were on their own.

The Orchard Hill subdivision, located in Madison County, lost 60 of its 90 expensive brick homes. Two people were killed there. Fifteen other Madison County fire stations sustained varying levels of damage from tornados.

The search and rescue operation lasted until 3 A.M. Off-duty personnel reported for work, and the Jackson County Fire Department provided Engine 12 and Snorkel 1. Although their station was severely damaged, the Bemis fire crew continued to function and fulfill its primary mission.

"The fire station never went down," Laster said. "We kept on providing service to the people in our area. My firefighters did an excellent job in the search and rescue. They never considered the risk of collapsed walls, downed electric lines, glass, nails and other debris. Assistant Chief (Ray) Puckett and Jackson Fire Chief (Owen) Collins were also on the scene assisting us. At 3 A.M., we moved the command post to our station. Local businesses helped us out with food."


Michael Garlock is a Florida- and New York-based freelance writer specializing in fire service response to major storms.